Homage to Catalonia – George Orwell

This wasn’t the book I intended to read this week, but my friend and fellow book blogger Mixa in Barcelona (read her review here) saw a copy on my shelves and has tracked down a copy in Catalan so I thought it was probably about time to reread the book after a gap of about twenty years so that it would be fresh in my mind when she wants to talk about it. Nowadays Orwell (real name Eric Blair) is almost entirely known as a novelist and his journalism is largely and sadly neglected. Homage to Catalonia even started out being neglected. It was first printed on 23rd April 1938 and a year later by the start of WWII it had only sold around 900 copies and soon after went out of print. It would only be available sporadically until Penguin Books printed a copy in March 1962, since then it has never been out of print.

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The book tells of Orwell’s experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War as part of an international militia against the uprising of General Franco and he is very clear that this is the war as he saw it and for the most part it is a very readable account. There are two chapters where he attempts to make sense of the alphabet soup of political organisations and militias taking part and these are prefaced by clear warnings that it is about to get complicated, as shown in the below extract from paragraph two of chapter five…

At the beginning I had ignored the political side of the war, and it was only about this time that it began to force itself upon my attention. If you are not interested in the horrors of party politics. please skip; I am trying to keep the political parts of this narrative in separate chapters for precisely that purpose. But at the same time it would be quite impossible to write about the Spanish war from a purely military angle. It was above all things a political war.

What follows is a section I’m glad I read because I had to keep referring back to it to sort out in my mind the differences and indeed the similarities between PSUC, POUM, FAI, CNT, UGT, JCI, JSU and AIT all of which were political parties or trade unions or possibly both, it does get very confusing, especially as in theory they were all aligned against the Fascists of Franco but seemed to spend most of the time fighting and bickering amongst themselves. This was particularly true during the short lived Barcelona uprising that Orwell got caught up in by happening to be on leave from the front after 115 days and arrived back in the city just before it all got even more complicated. But I am getting ahead of myself lets get back to chapter one with Orwell arriving in Barcelona with his wife, intending to write about the war but actually enlisting as a member of the POUM militia within days of getting there.  His wife Eileen stayed in the Hotel Continental in Barcelona throughout their time in Spain whilst Orwell was fighting on a front line less than 170 miles away. The photo below is by Robert Capa and is part of the John Hillelson Agency collection and shows the sort of trenches Orwell would be in.

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Initially Orwell writes of his surprise on arriving in Barcelona in December 1936 that unions and workers parties had taken over the city and everywhere he saw the red and black flag of the Anarchists who were in control. This appealed to the socialist principles that Orwell espoused and it was probably this that led him to opt to fight for them rather than simply report on the situation. Unfortunately for him later he chose the wrong set of initials to join up with, but as he had said above the internecine politics hadn’t registered with him at first and he effectively just joined the first group that would have him. The first chapter covers the ‘training’ or rather lack of it he received in the Lenin barracks the poor conditions and the largely useless equipment they were issued with, chapter two has him on his way to being posted to the front where he was finally issued with an ancient rifle.

Chapters three and four tell of his time in the trenches above Zaragoza on the Aragon front, a place where the 6 foot 3 inch Orwell was clearly unsuited being head and shoulders taller than his fellow militiamen as can be seen in the photo below from the University College, London collection and reproduced opposite page 65 of my edition.

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The time there was largely one of freezing temperatures, squalor and boredom, the two front lines were so far apart on opposite mountain tops that only by the merest chance could anyone be hit by firing from the opposition. What wounds and deaths did occur were mainly accidents of the sort you get when you hand unreliable weapons to 15 year old boys without showing them how to use them. The real oddity in the photo above though is that Eileen is there so she must have made a trip up from Barcelona although Orwell doesn’t mention her doing so in the book.

After the first of the political chapters, chapter six has him still bored at the front line

Meanwhile nothing happened, nothing ever happened. The English had got into the habit of saying that this wasn’t a war, it was a bloody pantomime.

and reflecting on the effect that the war was having on the local population who were largely trying to live their lives as best they could. In chapter seven Orwell finally sees some action, it was decided to crawl at night across the hundreds of yards of no man’s land and attack the fascist line. It did not go well and although they did get into the enemy trenches they were told to retreat before morning and that would be the only time he faced the enemy in actual combat. Chapter eight is very short and is largely concerned with preparations to go on leave back to Barcelona.

Chapters nine, ten and eleven all concern his badly timed break back in the city. On his return he discovered that the workers revolution had largely petered out and life had returned to a sort of normality with the war something happening in the distance.  However this was not to last long, the tensions between the various groups was about to explode onto the streets and on the 3rd of May fighting began, initially at the telephone exchange but rapidly spreading through the main thoroughfares.  Orwell is caught up in the middle of this but it rapidly becomes as much of a stalemate as the ‘fighting’ on the front. The various factions take up strategic positions and sort of agree amongst themselves to not shoot each other. These chapters for me are the most interesting of the book, the endless boredom of the front is at least improved here by not only the considerably more action but also the shortness of the time scale before it all came to an end.

Chapter twelve sees Orwell return to the front but this was to be for a very short time as he was soon wounded by a shot through the neck which saw him invalided out. By this time he was increasingly disillusioned by the war, what he had seen in Barcelona had convinced him that this was not the great and noble calling that he once thought it was and his choice of POUM was about to become a major problem. Whilst in hospital and then trying to get his discharge papers signed off POUM were picked on as the scapegoat for the fighting in Barcelona and all members were to be arrested and probably shot as traitors. As he describes it this was definitely untrue but it was a convenient fabrication to allow the other factions to re-unite behind. So as well as being wounded he was now a wanted man. In the last two chapters he and Eileen manage to escape Spain and he reflects on his experiences. His conclusions went strongly against the narrative being pushed in the socialist press in the UK which he also heavily criticised and this meant that getting the book published proved difficult as his normal publisher wouldn’t take it.

The book is a fascinating study of the realities of war, the long periods of tedium enlivened by occasional periods of firing from the trenches in the beginning of the book through the difficulties of conflict within a city and is also surprisingly funny in places as he enlivens the tale. All in all it deserves to be better known. When most people think of Orwell what usually comes to mind is 1984 or Animal Farm, try his reportage, it is definitely worth seeking out.

My copy is the 1970 Folio Society first edition which was popular enough to have two further reprints in 1972 and 1975 before dropping out of the Folio catalogue until 1998. It then re-appeared as part of a five volume set of Orwell’s reportage along with “Down and Out in Paris and London”, “The Road to Wigan Pier” and two volumes of journalism and essays. This set has as yet not been reprinted. Although bought second-hand and with a badly sunned spine and grubby covers that don’t want to clean, what I like about this edition is the inclusion of contemporary photographs of Orwell and other people mentioned in the book on the front line. Regrettably not any by Orwell himself because as he explains in the book his camera and photographs were all stolen or impounded along with his notes and press clippings at various different times whilst he was involved in the war. I have reproduced a couple of the photos from the book above. The cover illustration is a view of the battlefield near Belchite on the Aragon front and is from the Fox Photos Ltd collection.

The Oxford English Dictionary

The complete OED is ninety years old this year so it a good opportunity to look both at my copy but also the history as to how this massive work came to be produced. Unlike almost all other dictionaries the complete OED is organised on historical principles, that is; it not only tells you the current meaning of a word, but also previous meanings over 1,000 years of English usage illustrated by quotations. This means that the over six hundred thousand words now in the dictionary are complemented by in excess of three million quotations.

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Although the first edition of the work was finally completed in 1928, work on it started much earlier and the decision to embark on the project actually goes back over seventy years before then to a meeting of the Philological Society of London in 1857. However nothing really happened after that, despite their resolution that existing English dictionaries were incomplete and not suitable for purpose. At the time the finest dictionary available for English had just passed its one hundredth birthday so it wasn’t unreasonable to see that A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson was looking somewhat dated. That astonishing work by one man over seven years still ranks as one of the greatest single acts of scholarship and would remain the ultimate guide to the language for 173 years until the OED was completed by its large team of some two thousand compilers. Johnson himself defined dictionary compilers as follows:

Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words

Actual work on the first edition of the OED didn’t start until 1879 when an arrangement had been reached with the Oxford University Press to publish and James Murray appointed as editor. The plan was to produce a four volume dictionary of some 6,400 pages and have it complete in ten years, this was to prove hopelessly optimistic. The dictionary was being written in alphabetical order so that the sections could be produced as they went along rather than waiting for completion but after five years the team had reached “Ant”, this was much more difficult than they had thought. In fact the first part of the dictionary did not see light of day until 1884 and ultimately by 1928, almost fifty years after starting, there would be 128 parts which were bound into ten volumes comprising 15,490 pages and over a quarter of a million entries. Unfortunately Murray died in 1915 so never saw his life’s work as a complete edition. The set was also very expensive, the cheapest binding cost 50 guineas (over £3,150 in today’s money) so it was definitely intended for institutions rather than members of the public.

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Completing the first edition was just the start, languages never stop evolving, especially English which is continually adding new words and meanings from across the world so the two remaining editors W.A. Craigie and C.T. Onions almost immediately started work on revisions for a second edition and also a supplement to keep the work up to date. By 1933 this supplement was produced and the original dictionary reset and reprinted in twelve volumes and there things stayed as far as printed editions were concerned until 1957 when it was decided to revise and expand the supplement. This became a four volume work in its own right, coming out between 1972 and 1986, but by then it had been decided to produce a second edition. This would merge not only the first edition with the supplements but include all the extra entries that had been compiled as the supplements were being published but which had missed their appropriate volume and whilst they were at it convert it to an electronic form for ease of future amendment.

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The second edition came out in 1989 and had grown to twenty volumes consisting of 21,730 pages with 291,500 entries and it is the ‘compact’ version of this edition that has illustrated this blog. This version, which I have had since it came out, reproduces all 21,730 pages as photo-reductions, nine to a page and is printed on very thin paper which allows for the 2,386 pages to be bound in one huge volume. It comes with a guide to using the dictionary, which also includes a very useful (at least for this essay) history of the publication and an absolutely essential magnifying glass with built in light so that you can actually read the text. Three volumes of ‘Additions’ came out in the 1990’s however not in ‘compact’ form, but in 2000 it was decided to abandon further updated print editions in favour of electronic updates and to move the dictionary online. The full twenty volume dictionary is still available in print for £845 or you can get the compact edition that I own for £400

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Although the third edition, should it ever achieve completion, will almost certainly never be sold as a printed edition as it is far more practical in the form it has now taken, the editors have already produced a preface which includes the following recognition that a lexicographers work is never done:

There are a number of myths about the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the most prevalent of which is that it includes every word, and every meaning of every word, which has ever formed part of the English language. Such an objective could never be fully achieved. The present revision gives the editors the opportunity to add many terms which have been overlooked in the past, but it should be understood that fully comprehensive coverage of all elements of the language is a chimera. That said, the content of the Dictionary is certainly comprehensive within reasonable bounds.

The second edition really was just the first edition with more entries (existing entries were not amended) however the work now being done on the third edition is going back and updating those early definitions, some of which haven’t changed since the 1880’s when the first part was published. This will bring the dictionary fully up to date and also deal with the difference in style for the first entries in the part of the alphabet to make everything consistent. Subscriptions to the online OED are normally £215 a year however for the 90th birthday celebration this has been cut to £90 for any subscription taken out before 31st March 2019.

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One of the fun things that can be done with new edition is free and I recommend signing up to the word of the day.  As I type this post it has come up with:

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and I think that sums up the joy of the OED, yes for anyone interested in the English language everything really is oojah-cum-spiff.

Never Let Me Go – Kazou Ishiguro

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Kazou Ishiguro was born in Japan but moved with his family to England when he was just five years old, as a result most of his novels and short stories are set in England and usually in the past. This allows him to reflect on his adopted homeland from the perspective of a outsider who is also an insider; his parents never expected to stay so long in England so he grew up in a Japanese speaking household even whilst attending English schools and colleges. The Remains of the Day which takes place in a English country house in the 1940’s is probably his best known work and this book is set in the 1980’s and 1990’s so initially it felt like familiar territory. Before starting to read Never Let Me Go I knew nothing about it and made a point (as I usually do) of not reading the introduction to this Folio Society edition so I was coming to the novel with no preconceptions.

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The stark illustrations by Kate Miller set the tone of the book straight away. I now know that this is Tommy and Kathy outside the sports pavilion at Hailsham school in a scene from the first chapter, later on we would be introduced to the other main character, Ruth. The novel is in three parts; the first, and longest section, is set at the school and initially it reads like any novel at a boarding school or it least it would do if it wasn’t for the haunting opening lines of the novel that hint at something that really isn’t right but clearly central to the work.

My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years. That sounds long enough, I know, but actually they want me to go on for another eight months, until the end of this year. That’ll make it almost exactly twelve years.

The second section is set at ‘the Cottages’ an old farm where a group of the students get sent after leaving Hailsham and then the final section deals with Kathy’s time as a carer. The book is written in the first person as Kathy and we follow her reminiscences through her school-days and afterwards, all the way up until we get back to this opening line.  But just what is the role of a carer? Well it will take half the novel before that truly becomes clear and it turns out that I accidentally bought three dystopian novels as part of a block purchase from the Folio Society when I though I only had two. (The Drowned World by J G Ballard, covered last month and The Last Man by Mary Shelley which will be the subject of a later blog).

I’m so glad that I hadn’t read the introduction to this edition before reading the book as it completely gives the plot away and even discusses the highly significant scene near the end of the novel. This unfortunately is a major failing of the Folio Society, their books are lovely but the introductions should really be postscripts.  This review won’t go into too much detail about the plot simply because I want any reader to come at the novel fresh as I did and discover slowly through the hints that get more specific as the book progresses just exactly what is going on and if you haven’t read the book I really do recommend it and you don’t need to get the Folio edition, it is readily available in paperback.

The school sounds like a typical English Public School (that is private for the rest of the world), although gradually you realise that year eight are actually only eight years old, so is it some sort of orphanage? Ishiguro’s master stroke in the novel is just how slowly he lets the reader into the reality of the situation, even the students don’t know what the place is really about but there are dark hints. A bit later on it becomes clear that they cannot leave the site and have virtually no contact with the outside world other than the mysterious Madame who visits occasionally and takes away their best artworks; all very odd.

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The picture above is from a scene at the Cottages, Tommy and Ruth are now a couple, with Kathy feeling like an outsider and it is by now obvious most of what is going on although why is still a significant question and this wouldn’t be fully answered until the penultimate chapter. My theory at this point was largely correct but I had anticipated the final twist as to why they are there however without doing exactly what I criticised Claire Messud for in her introduction and giving away too much this is about as far through the plot that I can go.

Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel prize for literature in 2017 with a citation  “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” and this book certainly fits that description.

The Girl’s Own Paper

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Last week I wrote about The Boy’s Own Paper with it’s mix of tales about adventurers, swimming The Channel with Captain Webb, foreign countries and peoples, sport and other outdoors pursuits. All in all an exciting read for Victorian boys.  Well a year after it started the same publisher came up with The Girl’s Own Paper and the content was very different, reflecting the still held view that girls were effectively in training to be home-makers and certainly didn’t need, or want, tales of adventure. I don’t have as many copies of The Girl’s Own Paper but I can do the same as I did last week and look through the first ever issue from January 3rd 1880.

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The front cover looks similar to the boy’s version only the masthead is somewhat less interesting, The drawing is based on the relief sculpture “The Spirit of Love and Truth” by Joseph Edwards and as such is entirely in tune with the Victorian attitude to girls. The story on the front is a long running part work, you can follow Zara for months as the magazine comes out each week. This is presumably because the serialised stories proved so popular in the boy’s version, this contrasts with the one off tale that appeared in their first edition but this was soon changed to serials in future examples. This opening section of the tale is a full four pages long.

Instead of tales of daring do with the dashing Captain Webb girls have the life of the young Princess Victoria which is altogether more refined and ladylike and also runs to almost three full pages. It is clearly intended to be an example of moral rectitude to inspire the readers and is pure hagiography as would be only expected really. The balance of the seventh page of the paper is occupied with The Girls Own Alphabet which is frankly dire and ends:

Woman is formed from girlhoods first plan –
Xantippe or Claudia, Queen Mary or Anne
Young friends to be happy, now learn to be wise
Zeal without knowledge is a head without eyes

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After the first seven pages consisting of the story plus Princess Victoria and the poem, an article on fashion though the ages was pretty well compulsory. A girl is naturally interested in dress styles and outfits so the next double page spread is concerned with this. The hat on the lady for 1787 on the far right of the second page is described as ‘more dressy’ it makes you wonder just how over the top an outfit had to be before it was queried.

and logically following on from that are long sections on needlework and of course cookery. As I said at the beginning the target audience are home-makers in preparation, if a woman of the time did work she would be a domestic servant or nanny if she was lucky and not forced into the extremely hard work of the mills or markets, the poorest though would not be frittering their money on something as ephemeral as this magazine, the readership could be relied upon to be at least middle class so housewife was the aim for almost all. The cookery class in this edition is about roasting and apart from the fact that it assumes you would be doing so over a fire rather than in an oven a lot of the advice would not be out of place in a modern cookery book. There then follows a couple of shorter stories before we reach..

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The Useful Hints sound initially as if they are envisaging a poorer reader and the chilblains remedy sounds positively dangerous, but soon normal service is resumed with hints for reviving gilt frames and renovating silk dresses. Now this is still a make do and mend mentality there is none of the waste of throwing away perfectly serviceable items so prevalent today, girls would be expected to have the skills needed to fix things regardless of their social standing, needlework was an expected ability and it would be surprisingly advanced.

Like last week I have looked forward to edition three of the Girls Own Paper to see what they are expected to be able to make; and again what would today be seen as an astonishing amount of craft is regarded as normal.

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The bed satchel prize competition is for Crewel Work, a type of embroidery which uses wool, competitors had three months to complete the item, the winner to get two guineas and a second prize of one guinea. These are substantial prizes, the equivalent of almost £240 for the winner in today’s money. The work was to be 19¼ inches by 13 inches and use the pattern illustrated, it also had to be all the girls own work and this had to be stated in an accompanying letter written by a minister, teacher or parent. Colours are suggested in the hints section and the flowers named so that the correct shades would be used. No entrant would get their work back as

It is intended to present the well-worked satchels to the various hospitals and other charitable institutions for the use of poor patients, who will find them most handy for holding their nightdresses, pocket handkerchiefs, scent bottles, scissors etc.

The Boy’s Own Paper

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The Boys Own Paper started on Saturday January 18th 1879 and I have lots of early editions which have been bound into annual volumes and then after those a few examples of Boys Own Annual where the publisher reprinted the previous years editions in book form. The magazine was printed weekly and was full of exciting stories both fact and fiction, sports advice (later editions had articles on how to play cricket by WG Grace) along with things to do, most of which would be well beyond the target age group nowadays. The masthead reproduced above hinted at the wonders that would be found inside.

In exploring The Boys Own Paper I thought about taking my collection as a whole but decided that a more representative idea as to what a boy of 1879 would get from such a paper would be to just look at the very first issue which cost 1 penny back then which according to the Bank of England inflation calculator would be 50p nowadays so a very reasonable price as any equivalent today would be significantly more expensive.

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The front cover looks very promising but the game, described as football, is clearly what we would now call rugby. Indeed rugby football was commonly played in schools from the 1850’s following its creation at Rugby School in the 1830’s, Association Football (what we now think of as football) only had it’s rules set in 1863 and wasn’t as popular in schools even by 1879. The story concerns a boy, who picked for the team for the first time gets involved in a very close match which they only win right at the end, very much the sort of thing to catch the readers attention to the publication. The paper is 16 pages long and this tale takes up the initial 2½ pages. It was followed by a short poem and then the first part of what was to become a long running serial “Out with a Jack-Knife” and a much shorter series (just three parts) by Captain Webb, the first person to swim The English Channel.

The natural history column Out with a Jack-Knife proved especially popular and ran for a long time, in this first example it is 1½ pages long and describes finding various worms, centipedes and even glow-worms in a small overgrown garden area after first explaining that what you need is a proper British made jack-knife not one of those inferior foreign knives that include useless corkscrews, saws, things for getting stones out of horses hooves etc. British is best is a long running assumption in these magazines and this wouldn’t change right through until the magazine finally folded in 1967 after 2,511 issues, initially weekly and then monthly after WWI.

Captain Webb’s tale as to how he came to swim The Channel is full of self-deprecation as is appropriate for a Victorian gentleman. The final paragraph of the section reproduced above even says how difficult it is for him to write the piece because it is about himself but he did manage a page. Between the two sections came another page long article entitled “An Afghan Robber” which despite the unpromising title turns out to be a remarkably balanced piece of writing, especially for the time, which is actually quite complementary regarding the Koran and the Muslim faith in general.

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There then followed a series of stories, the most significant of which was “From Powder Monkey to Admiral”, this became a major storyline in future issues and by part four it was the front page tale. Subtitled “Or, the Stirring Days of the Royal Navy” this had it all for the boy looking for action and adventure in his reading and it would continue to be the front page story for most of the rest of the year and was always at least two pages in length, a significant proportion of  16 page publication.

Two shorter articles towards the end of the magazine are intriguing, I’m not sure if having read the piece about monkeys I was therefore expected to have one or more as a pet although it did lead me into that interpretation but I was more interested in the first column on Outdoor Pursuits entitled “Skating and Scuttling”. Skating I can understand, but deliberate sinking of ships as a pastime is definitely rather advanced for boys to be getting up to. It turns out that a ‘Scuttler’ is somebody who frankly is a nuisance out on the ice, dashing about without regard for other users and even worse can gather with others of their type to form conga lines spinning across the surface. The publication then has shorter and shorter articles until there is finally an essay writing competition based on a drawing with no caption.

I do want to include one item from issue three of The Boys Own Paper which gives some idea as to how advanced in skills boys were expected to be.

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This is regarded as a project that “any lads with fair mechanical aptitude’ can make what is clearly a quite advanced craft. This isn’t a simple coracle or lash up raft, what we are looking at is a serious rowing boat and you are going to learn how to do it from your weekly boys magazine. I cannot imagine any publication aimed at this age group suggesting such a thing in the present day.

Well that was issue one of The Boys Own Paper in next weeks blog I’m going to look at issue one of The Girls Own Paper which came out a year later and what a contrast it is…